NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip - Israeli soldiers and police began entering Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip yesterday and at dawn today were to begin forcibly removing thousands of settlers and protesters who have refused to leave under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan.
The deadline for the 8,500 Jewish settlers and their supporters to go passed at midnight with perhaps half of them having packed their belongings. A trickle of cars loaded with furnishings was crossing the Gaza border into Israel.
During the day, police and soldiers walked down the streets of the settlements, urging those remaining to pack their belongings and join those on the way out. A company of soldiers stood by to help carry boxes or provide transportation.
In Neve Dekalim, the settlement that has become a center of resistance, some families accepted the offer. But in most cases, the soldiers and police met with closed doors, cold stares or screaming residents who accused them of destroying a homeland they believe God set aside for the Jews.
Soldiers cut down some of Neve Dekalim's fencing overnight, and early in the day marched in formation through the gate and fanned out through the village.
Commanders carried maps, and troops took up positions near the industrial zone, linking arms to form a cordon. They arrested 48 demonstrators who threw stones and eggs at soldiers, and police tried to clear the way for a convoy of moving vans for residents who wanted to leave.
Protesters young and old taunted the soldiers, calling them "Nazis" and shouting, "Jews do not expel other Jews." Settlers burned trash bins in the middle of the street, slashed tires of police and army vehicles, and splattered paint on windshields. Plumes of smoke from fires set by protesters rose into the night sky.
Young girls sat on street corners, weeping at the sight of the police and soldiers.
A young woman in a white skirt and shirt cornered a group of soldiers on a dead-end street, stared them in the eye and pleaded with them to reconsider their actions.
"You should do what your heart tells you, not what your commander tells you." she said, wagging her finger.
"Our neighbors are buried here. Why are you tearing us away?" another women said to police. "Are you fulfilling orders? Adolf Eichmann fulfilled orders."
"The soldiers will go from house to house, knocking at the door, taking them by the [arm] and moving them out of the area." said Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, who is in charge of the combined Israeli military and police forces during the pullout.
"We understand the grief of the families who have to leave their homes, their work, their communities and the crisis they have in their ideological beliefs." he said. "At the same time, we have to come in and enforce the law."
Arriving with armored personnel carriers and bulldozers, the unarmed Israeli forces plan to present overwhelming force to subdue the unruly gangs of protesters who have been taunting and clashing with authorities during the past two days.
Soldiers and police wore caps and vests displaying Israel's flag instead of their unit insignia as a sign that they did not view the settlers as the "enemy." But protesters, many of them young Jewish settlers from the West Bank, accused soldiers and police of acting like Nazis and urged them to disobey orders.
Two police officers and two civilians were injured in scuffles. Many of the protesters who were arrested were taken out of Gaza and released on bail.
Israel's defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, said he expected at least half of Gaza's 8,500 settlers to leave without resistance.
"We will make every effort, the army and the police, to have law and order in this process, and anyone who acts illegally will be treated according to the law." Mofaz said. Some of the smaller Gaza settlements were said to be empty.
Despite fears that Palestinian militants would attack settlers and soldiers during the withdrawal, the Israeli army said Gaza remained quieter than normal. Instead of the usual 10 militant attacks or incidents per day, there were three minor explosions and shootings.
When Palestinian youths attempted to go near the settlements, Palestinian security forces stopped them.
"The Palestinian forces acted swiftly." Harel said.
The scene last night in this settlement of tile-roofed homes overlooking the Mediterranean Sea was a mix of public displays of anguish and quiet defeat.
Just down the street from a crowd of protesters carrying a sign that read "Bush and Sharon have declared war on God and his Bible." Meir Ben Simhon was fastening the rope on a trailer packed high with wicker chairs and other furniture.
After 15 years in Neve Dekalim, Ben Simhon, his wife and four children were on their way out, hoping to beat the midnight deadline. They had no desire to fight the government eviction orders.
"We are people of faith. We were hoping to stay here. We are hoping someday we can return." said Ben Simhon, a vegetable farmer. "We are people of quality, not violence."
A half dozen families were hauling boxes onto moving trucks. Other homes were empty, taken over by protesters who had defied orders to stay out of Gaza.
Most shops at Neve Dekalim's mall appeared locked and abandoned. Grocery store shelves were empty except the aisle of household cleaners and insecticide.
Still, plenty of residents ignored the signs that the closing of the settlement was near. One family sat on the front porch watering their lawn. Others carried on, eating dinner, tidying up, taking their children for walks, as if nothing was about to change.
Army Maj. Eran Carasso entered Neve Dekalim about 8:30 p.m., charged with visiting 41 of the settlement's 500 houses to ask residents if they needed assistance. Of the 30 he reached by about 11 p.m., six families had left or were packing their belongings.
"There are some people who agree to accept our help." he said. Others screamed at him, calling him a "Nazi."
"Someone asked me why my mom gave birth to me, was it to take people from their homes." he said.
"It's very hard, but we made a lot of training to prepare ourselves for this situation." he said. "But when it's real, it's much harder."